Pickin' apart the Pickens Plan

Over the past few days I’ve been seeing a lot of ads featuring Swift Boat financier/apologist T. Boone Pickens. Here’s the ad:

His site and the plan that he lays out, is an interesting, though hardly comprehensive, take on energy independence. The long and the short of it is, lets build a bunch of wind capacity to displace the role of Natural Gas in electricity generation, then take that natural gas and make it the primary fuel for transportation. It is by far, the most concrete, and doable plan I’ve seen put forth by any conservative in the US.

Pickens has been investing in wind. He’s in the process of building a 4000 turbine wind farm in Texas that should start going on line in 2010. But Pickens is known as an oil man. He currently sits on the board of two natural gas outfits, Exco Resources and Clean Energy Fuels Corp., so it’s not as if he doesn’t stand to gain something by moving Natural Gas from electricity production to transportation. He has been mostly selling his Natural gas holdings, as reflected in his insider trading profile, but I’m still suspicious.

I’m suspicious because of a lot of things, but mostly because of his Swift Boat activities. Why would any Democrat embrace anything this guy has to say, when he’s engaged in once of the most reckless smear jobs of the new century? Is this an attempt at redemption, or seizing an opportunity to drive the debate in a direction that benefits his bottom line at the exclusion of other emerging plans?

According to the DOE (Source), 25% of all US Natural Gas consumption is used for electricity generation, 22% for home heating, and a paltry .1% for vehicle fuel. Natural Gas for vehicle fuel just happens to be Clean Energy Fuels Corp.’s main business.

The US imports 20% of it’s annual Natural Gas consumption. 83% of that is imported from Canada and Mexico. Displacing the role of Natural Gas in energy consumption may free up enough to put a dent in our current foreign oil consumption, but it would hardly replace it. Further, converting existing vehicles to Natural Gas, and building the infrastructure to support those vehicles would be an expensive enterprise. That’s not a reason to dismiss Natural Gas as an option, it just shouldn’t be the only option.

The Pickens plan isn’t totally off the mark, but it’s not a real solution either. Despite reports to the contrary, Natural Gas won’t last forever. Natural Gas prices fluctuate wildly as winter comes around. On the other hand, Natural Gas engines are currently in service, and available in some areas of the country, but it’s not as if you can just hook your car up to your home gas service and refill. Natural Gas for automobiles need about 3000 psi to work in converted engines.

Natural Gas is part of the solution, but like corn, increasing demand for Natural Gas will ultimately hurt poor people in states with longer winters than we have here in the south by increasing prices to keep their homes heated. The real solution is a lot more complicated than replacing one fossil fuel for another. It’s a multi-tiered approach that includes Natural Gas, electrics, hybrids, oil, and emerging technologies all at once. The first step is reducing consumption through promoting efficiency, increasing the availability of public transportation, and changing public perceptions of energy use.

The biggest problem with the Pickens Plan is that it does nothing to address the prevalence of coal in electricity generation (50% of all electricity is generated by coal), another resource that is currently abundant, but hardly renewable. In short, the Pickens Plan is a transitional strategy more than a long term solution. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be part of the dialogue, but we should consider the source before hitching our wagon to another oil man’s plan, who seems to be more invested in his own interests than a comprehensive solution.

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